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Scene & Heard: Listen to the Cold War Kids

James Costa | Monday, November 19, 2007

The Hollywood writers’ strike may have yielded repeat after repeat of your favorite shows. Usually a habitué of Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno, I had almost given up on watching late-night television for the time being until I saw a repeat of an episode from this past summer on NBC last week featuring a rock band called the Cold War Kids. Sounding like angry brew of early Matchbox Twenty and Ryan Adams with hints of Maroon 5 and even Radiohead, I turned up the volume to better hear this catchy new blend of fringe pop.

Jumping around my television, albeit not live (damn TV writers), was a raucous and wild indie rock group from Long Beach, Calif., that played pop hooks with the energy of The Clash. I was sold. Usually late night appearances are a tepid event featuring shoe-gazing hipsters strumming tunes eerily similar to Elvis Costello or Beck songs. The Cold War Kids seemed to walk the tight-rope between indie-rock ingenuity and the energy and zeal of a classic rock cover band covering “Free Bird” at the end of a long night. It was so good that I drove over to Barnes and Noble on Grape Road to pick up their latest album, “Robbers and Cowards.”

After a first listen, it reminds me of Mute Math’s recent work, yet different in how it uses live studio recordings with creepy and mechanical sonic effects to create an indelible sound. Like most all current “smart” bands, the Cold War Kids have an affinity for showing off just how smart and clever they are. This is seen most in their plentiful use of references to Salinger, Garcia Marquez and Jesus. Indeed, the references are the type that would make a slightly brainy high school kid grin with glee at his ability to understand the meaning of the lyrics, however they can get a bit old.

Back to Matchbox Twenty for a second. Back with MB20 came out with its debut album, “Yourself or Someone Like You,” the band was hailed as slightly off-beat, fresh and positively rocking. Then a series of follow-up albums over the next few years came out and they could never regain the fantastic sound and enthusiasm that propelled them to superstardom in the first place. The trouble with The Cold War Kids is that they show a little too close a resemblance to the 1996-era MB20. They seem to promise a fresh take on an oft-used and antiquated sound, and it almost works. Yet unfortunately, too many of the sounds fall into the realm of clichéd mainstream parading as underground – very much like the trouble encountered by Matchbox.

This isn’t to say it’s all bad though. Two songs in particular, “We Used to Vacation” and “Hospital Beds,” are a real joy to listen to. In “We Used to Vacation,” the listener is treated to a sad but upbeat tale of domestic difficulties and the trouble with having an alcoholic father who is intent on changing his ways but just can’t overcome the hurdles of sobriety. “Hospital Beds” details life in a hospital and the weird reality of living in a world of strangers and despair. Using a pounding piano along with rough but strong lyrics, lead singer Nathan Willet wails, “I got one friend laying across from me / I did not choose him / He did not choose me. / We’ve got no chance of recovering / In the hospital / The joy of misery.” Just a moment later, some obvious Christian imagery is presented with the baptismal reference, “Put out the fire on us.” While wading dangerously close to being too much, Willet sings it all with enough gusto and emotion to make it worth the listen.

This bad isn’t going to save the world. They aren’t the “Best New Band in the World” like it was proclaimed in NME. However, they’re pretty good and worth the $14 bucks or so it’ll take to own the CD. And if you do buy it, get it in the store and not on iTunes because the cover art and booklet is pretty sweet.